For Michigan billionaire Roger Penske, the Chevrolet Belle Isle Grand Prix is more than a place for his formidable race team to collect a trophy. It’s a gift that can be enjoyed by the city of Detroit.
“We want to see Detroit successful,” Penske, 75, said recently as he took a tour of Belle Isle and sat down to discuss his love affair with racing, the island and Detroit. “I live in Michigan and want to see it be the best state in the U.S.”
Penske has lived in the Detroit area for more than four decades. His massive company is based in Bloomfield Hills and his heart is very much entrenched in helping the city regain its pulse after the recent severe economic downturn.
But Penske is as much a racer as he is a businessman. He is a team owner in the IndyCar and NASCAR series and promoter of the Detroit Grand Prix, which returns to Belle Isle for the first time since 2008.
The race, which has a three-year contract with Chevrolet as title sponsor, is expected to generate an estimated $50 million to $75 million, beginning today and concluding with the main event Sunday.
“We came to a dead stop like everybody else in the world,” Penske said. “I think it was prudent that we canceled the race because the corporate sponsorship is so necessary for a successful event here at Belle Isle, it would be a bit unfair to lean on them for support.”
The island has undergone yet another piece of the face-lift that Penske and his group, led by race chairman Bud Denker, have brought each year with the event. At least $150,000 has been circulated into Belle Isle for improvements.
This time, several hundred derelict pilings have been removed from the Boat Club, asphalt on the island was repaired, 5.5 million gallons of water have been recirculated in the lagoon to make the water clear, and several buildings along Jefferson Avenue have been painted or boarded up.
But the focal point of the island and a featured part of the official Grand Prix logo, Scott Fountain, is now gleaming, thanks to extensive cleaning courtesy of DTE. Yellowed by years of water stains, the fountain’s white marble has been restored.
Penske is not only about production; he is about presentation and details. And that is evident not only in his approach to racing, where his race shops and race-site garages are noted for their impeccable organization and neatness, but also in his day job. Penske Corporation manages businesses with revenues in excess of $16 billion.
It seems in some ways that with Penske, it all starts with the fine details. Here at Belle Isle, it’s about making certain he and his group are perfect race weekend hosts, showing off the island and the city. After all, if it doesn’t look appealing, why would anyone want to be there?
Added this year are track-side chalets near the casino, which will give those fans an up-close view of the race in the section of tight turns. The Grand Prix also has invited about 700 students from Detroit Public Schools who have shown an interest in technology, so event improvements are about intangibles as well as tangible effects.
“All of these things, as far as I’m concerned, make a huge difference,” Penske said of things such as the Scott Fountain restoration.
“We’re just giving back something to a city that was the core of the auto industry for so many years.
“The most important thing is for us to see the island come back and look as it should.”
Penske’s powerful IndyCar team includes Will Power and Helio Castroneves, 1-2 in the driver standings, and Indianapolis 500 pole winner Ryan Briscoe. The series is in Detroit following last Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, where the owner has won the famed race 15 times. The Indianapolis 500 and Detroit Grand Prix are different on many levels, but both hold a large portion of Penske’s heart.
“The Indy 500, you’re competing on the world stage, (but) this is a different assignment,” he said. “This is about supporting the city of Detroit, the private sector, connecting with the City Council and the governor and the mayor to create jobs and create economic development in the region.
“We get to showcase the city. This isn’t just a stick-and-ball sport where you come in for three or four hours and everybody leaves. They’re going to be here for a few days, so we really get a ripple effect over the number of days with the teams being here. To me, this is something we need. To me, this is about community. The Indianapolis 500 might be about racing.”
Having the Grand Prix the week following the Indianapolis 500 is a huge plus; Penske believes it will feed off the Indy 500 hype and momentum. In 2007 and 2008, the Belle Isle race took place on Labor Day weekend, which clashed with the start of the college football season.
“Date equity is so important for us,” Penske said.
Television coverage also is important. The Grand Prix will get three hours Saturday on SPEED and 2.5 hours on ABC for Sunday’s race.
“It’s real important (for people) to see what we have,” Penske said.
Penske had always expected to bring the race back to Belle Isle. The work of Denker, a vice president at Penske Corporation, has been vital in that effort. It was Denker who initiated contact with local corporations to determine their interest in the Grand Prix, and the response was immediate.
“It was, ‘How can we help? How can we have our people help?'” Penske said.
Being a cheerleader for Detroit is part of the way Penske believes he can help. Penske, chairman of the host committee for Super Bowl XL in Detroit, is involved in the M1 rail project, along with private sector investors Dan Gilbert, Peter Karmanos and Mike Ilitch.
Penske said he has visited other cities with a similar rail system, including Portland, Ore., Minneapolis and Denver, and is hopeful it will be a fixture in this city.
“People see downtown, and the infrastructure being built,” he said. “We hope to get our M1 rail completed over the next few years from the old GM area up at Grand Boulevard and running down Woodward to Jefferson. This will create 13 stations. We’ve seen what a light rail does to the community — it creates commercial activity around the stops, which then bumps out into residential areas. These are things that are going to be key for us.”
He said the rail eventually will connect with Amtrak to take passengers to Ann Arbor and eventually Metro Airport.
But that is the future. For now, he is focused on hosting the IndyCar series and its fans on Belle Isle, and he wants to keep this event going over the years as long as possible.
“I think at the end of the day, when you look at civic leaders, whether it’s in Los Angeles or New York, there are people genuinely committed to helping the environment, the social aspects of the city and the commercial part of it,” Penske said. “All we want to be … we want to make sure we’re carrying a load.
“As long as we have the continued support of the corporate community, (and) the sanctioning body feels it’s a place they want to showcase the sport, I think it will be a long-term race venue here.”